Henningsen: Pulpit Bully

Jun 4, 2018

Theodore Roosevelt called the Presidency “a bully pulpit” – a wonderful platform from which to proclaim policy and influence major events and issues.

And while “bully” as a synonym for “first-rate” has largely disappeared from the vernacular, the term remains closely associated with the American presidency.

Today many Americans are taking another look at how our leaders use that bully pulpit – even to the point of asking “What happens when it’s occupied by a pulpit bully?” But this isn’t new.

As far back as Andrew Jackson, whose forcible use of the Presidency to bend government to his will made him both highly effective and greatly feared, Americans have worried about abuse of executive power. And well they might.

As president, Jackson made unprecedented use of the veto, ignored Supreme Court rulings, single-handedly upended the American economy of the day, and expressed dismay at his inability to execute his own Vice-President.

And while we tend to think of Theodore Roosevelt as a crusading progressive, many of his contemporaries regarded him as an egocentric madman, given to bellicose use of prerogatives of an office he regarded as a personal plaything. “I took Panama!” he boasted, scrapping diplomacy over the canal project.

Cautioned that the Navy had only enough money to send the Great White Fleet halfway around the world, Roosevelt dispatched it anyway, leaving Congress to figure out how to bring it back. As a friend confided to the press, “You must remember, the President is about six.”

President Lyndon Johnson was famous for intimidating, even blackmailing, congressmen to achieve his legislative aims and given to calling news executives in the middle of the night to express in highly colorful language his opinion of their coverage of his administration.

Imagine if any of these folks had access to Twitter!

Historian Lord Acton famously observed that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s the major reason the framers created an American system of checks and balances. So we shouldn’t wonder at a President intoxicated with his own ability to impose his will – however capricious – by using the powers of office.

What should concern us, however, is the failure of our constitutional form of government to moderate the effects of presidential action - both at home and abroad.